Posted by jlwile on April 21, 2014
When someone wants to really insult you in a scientific discussion, he or she often compares you to someone who believes that the earth is flat. Not long ago, for example, President Obama wanted to level an insult at those who question the idea that human activities are warming the earth. In a speech at Georgetown University, he said that he has no patience for people who deny that human-produced global warming is real. He added:
We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-Earth society…Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.
Of course, creationists are often given the same label. Wray Herbert, for example, is a journalist who focuses on human behavior and health. For a while, he was the psychology editor at Science News, an indispensable resources for keeping up with the most recent scientific discoveries. He wrote:
The last Flat Earther supposedly was spotted in California, near Los Angeles, some years ago. But the term endures in our cultural idiom, where it has come to mean any dogmatic, rigidly anti-scientific thinker: Creationists, holocaust-deniers, indeed anyone who insists on an irrational belief, all meaningful evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
Wray is wrong about a couple of things in those two sentences, including the fact that the last Flat Earther was spotted in LA some years ago. In fact, belief in a flat earth is alive and well today, and one of its major spokesmen has a rather interesting mix of views.
English signwriter Samuel Shenton formed the Flat Earth Society in 1956. Its headship was passed to Charles Johnson in 1971, and it went out of existence in 2001. However, in 2004, it was resurrected in website form by Daniel Shenton, who is not related to Samuel Shenton. The Guardian recently published a story about his views, and guess what? He is not a creationist. In fact, he is an evolutionist, and he thinks the evidence for human-caused global warming is rather strong!
He says that his society now has 60 members and his website’s discussion forums have been visited by 9,000 people. If you look at those forums, you find an interesting mix of views on global warming. For example, the Anthropogenic Climate Change forum starts with a graph of thermometer-based temperature measurements and the now-discredited “hockey stick” graph that supposedly show the reality of global warming. The discussion that follows contains those who believe it is real, those who believe it is not, and those who think it is real but mostly natural. Another forum is about the recent debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye. There doesn’t seem to be a single creationist in on the discussion.
Now, of course, those participating in the forum discussions might not be flat earthers, but that’s not the point. The point here is that while there are those who believe in a flat earth (despite strong evidence to the contrary), they don’t seem to have much in common with creationists or skeptics of human-caused global warming. In fact, I don’t know of a single creationist or global-warming skeptic who believes in a flat earth, but I do know there is at least one flat earther who believes in evolution and human-caused global warming!
Of course, before I leave this post, I must repeat something I have written before. Despite what you might have learned from well-meaning teachers, the flat earth view was never popular among ancient people. Aristotle (from the third century BC) promoted the idea that the earth is a sphere*, and in the second century BC, Eratosthenes used that idea to measure the earth’s circumference. The earliest Christian writers (such as Basil of Caesarea, c. 330-379) mention the spherical shape of the earth as an accepted fact. No one thought Columbus was going to sail off the edge of the earth when he proposed his famous voyage. Instead, those in power had a good idea of how far he would have to travel to go all the way around the spherical earth, and most thought he and his crew could not make such a long journey.
So while the flat earth is a popular idiom used to insult people (typically by those who cannot support their view with evidence), it was never a very popular view, and the few who hold it today do not necessarily hold anti-mainstream views on other scientific issues. Of course, people who bother to take the time to investigate such matters already know this.
* Because of the work of Anders Celsius (yes the guy who came up with the temperature scale) and several others back in the late 1730s, we know that the earth is not a perfect sphere. Instead, it is a bit flattened at the poles and fat at the equator, so technically, the earth is an oblate spheroid. Newton predicted the earth would have such a shape back in 1687.
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